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Book early, expect to pay more to fly over holidays

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, at 11:46 p.m.

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Source: Airline Quality Rating

Traveling by air over the holidays will cost more but may be a more pleasant experience compared with recent years – as long as you book your travel early and the weather holds.

“If the weather’s good, it could be really a decent experience,” said Dean Headley, Wichita State University marketing professor and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating Report. “If not, it’s always a nightmare when the weather plays in.”

Airline performance has been improving, although flights have been full.

“Air travel will cost more, but if you can find a seat, it may operate better,” Headley said.

In years past, holiday travel has been a struggle, with December one of the worst months in terms of industry performance, Headley said.

Last year, however, the airlines’ performance was good over the holidays, and data indicate the improvement has continued through the first six months of 2012.

“If you book your travel early, chances are you’re going to have a good experience,” he said. “If you haven’t booked, and you’re waiting for that super good deal right at the last minute, that could be disappointing.”

Fares have been heading up all year, with multiple hikes implemented by most airlines. So tickets are more expensive than in years past.

Travelers who are willing to fly on the holiday itself — Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day — may get a slight break on price, and a more enjoyable trip.

For one, fewer passengers fly on the actual holiday. And flight attendants’ attitudes are usually “much more festive,” Headley said.

He also advises passengers to check for bad weather on the East Coast, where most flights originate. If a plane is an hour late coming out of New York or New Jersey, it’s an hour late the rest of the day.

“Problems roll over to the Midwest,” Headley said. “I watch the East Coast weather to see what’s going to mess up most of the flights.”

If you fly from Wichita to Atlanta and need to fly on to the East Coast, you might be spending the night in Atlanta if storms sock in airports farther east.

Maureen Hofrenning, vice president of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a seasoned holiday traveler.

Along with her husband and son, she has taken multiple trips over the holidays to England, where her husband grew up.

“I don’t find it that much different (traveling) than at other times — but there’s more people,” Hofrenning said.

They’ve experienced flight delays at times, but no major delays.

One thing she tries to do over the holidays is build longer connection times into the itinerary because of the possibility that bad weather could delay flights at airports you’re traveling through.

“Give yourself a little more leeway,” Hofrenning said. Having a tight connecting flight increases the odds of missing a flight.

She’s learned other lessons over the years as well.

For one, parents traveling with children should bring things to keep them busy. Travelers should also bring along snacks and drink water to avoid dehydration.

Sleeping on a flight when traveling internationally is also a good idea because it will help with the transition to a new time zone, she said.

Most importantly, passengers should pack a sense of humor and a lot of patience, Hofrenning said.

“You can’t let the little things bother you,” Hofrenning said. Or the big things.

“You’ve got to tell yourself you’ve got to go with the flow,” she said. “Otherwise you’ll stress yourself out and your family.”

Headley said that not only are airline fares higher, so, too, are the fees being charged for everything from luggage to aisle seats.

“Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly higher, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up,” Headley said. “Maybe a year ago, the average price was $350, but with $75 in fees, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive.”

When travel involves tickets for parents and children, those extra fees add up quickly.

“At some point, consumers will simply say that the holiday visit is not worth the price and the hassle,” Headley said.

He advises passengers to begin checking flights out of Wichita that have two stops before the final destination rather than one, as a way to save money.

A recent flight from Wichita with two stops saved him $400 round trip.

He also advises the use of a travel agent to find the best deals.

“It’s money well spent,” he said. “It’s saved me any amount of anguish looking at three or four websites.”

The best advice, however, is to keep your cool.

“It is the holiday season,” Headley said. “Try to maintain as much of the season as possible.”

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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